Kai Mai: Life as an Expat at a Shanghai Technology Startup

A few weeks ago, Kai Mai returned to the Bay Area for his Chinese New Year vacation to speak at an informal talk at Stanford about his experience working in China. Mai moved to China in mid-2010 to join Saybot.com as the director of software engineering and formerly was an organizer for a local Bay Area Chinese Entrepreneurs group. I’ve always been interested in possibly working in China and have blogged about the ‘real deal’ on finding opportunities there. I imagine my spoken Mandarin would need to improve dramatically considering the returning talent back to China these days.

Mai had never worked in China before and wanted to share what it was like compared to Silicon Valley, as well as share what was “hot” in China. I thought his perspectives, especially for a married man and father, brought an interesting angle that I had not necessarily heard first hand before.

Some of the topics that Mai covered were:

  • What are hot trends in China?
  • The challenging of working in a technology startup in Shanghai
  • The differences between living in Shanghai and the Bay Area
  • The initial shocks and adjustments of living in Shanghai

Mai was born in Guangzhou but moved to the U.S. as a child, attended UC Berkeley for undergrad and was naturalized as a U.S. citizen. He isn’t technically a “sea turtle,” a term to describe the Chinese who came to the U.S. for graduate school with plans to return to China.

After spending a decade in Silicon Valley, Kai was getting a bit bored and looking for an adventure and something interesting to work on. Through a friend of a friend, he came across Saybot.com, which was developing www.alo7.com, a fun virtual world for Chinese kids to learn English and play online.

The company was founded by someone who had gone to MIT and returned to China, and had been funded by a Boston-based VC firm. The site is to help young students improve their spoken English based on actual school curriculum. There is a monthly subscription fee of 30 RMB a month, and kids can earn virtual currency to play in the virtual world to further improve their English in virtual cities of actual cities (London, Sydney, New York, etc.).

Some of the things that took some getting used to for Mai in China was the weather, especially during the summer when Shanghai is extremely hot and humid.

Mai also mentioned that from an engineering standpoint, experienced and talented engineers are really hard to hire in China. They are in great demand. When hiring fresh out of college graduates, the technical skill level is not high and it is fairly standard practice to give written exams to weed out the unqualified. Additionally, because of the traditional rote Chinese educational system, critical thinking – as well as good communication skills – in great candidates are often hard to find. If you have a the time and are interested in this area, I think you might find Mai’s talk relevant and interesting.

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About John

I'm a Taiwanese-American and was born & raised in Western Massachusetts, went to college in upstate New York, worked in Connecticut, went to grad school in North Carolina and then moved out to the Bay Area in 1999 and have been living here ever since - love the weather and almost everything about the area (except the high cost of housing...)
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